Mazda BT-50 SDX 4x4 dual cab turbodiesel

words - Ken Gratton
Mazda's BT-50 contains few surprises, but it's solid, comfortable and dependable
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Road Test - Mazda BT-50 SDX 4x4 dual cab turbodiesel

RRP: $43,590
Price as tested: $43,872 (including tonneau $282)
Crash rating: three-star (ANCAP)
Fuel: Diesel
Claimed fuel economy (L/100km): 9.2
CO2 emissions (g/km): TBA
Also consider: Ford Ranger, Holden Colorado (more here), Isuzu D-MAX (more here), Nissan Navara D40 (more here here), Toyota HiLux

Overall rating: 3.0/5.0
Engine/Drivetrain/Chassis: 3.0/5.0
Price, Packaging and Practicality: 2.5/5.0
Safety: 2.5/5.0
Behind the wheel: 3.5/5.0
X-factor: 3.5/5.0

About our ratings

Pick-ups are one sector of the Australian new-car market in which sales continue to grow unabated. Even since July, when every other VFACTS segment turned to jelly, the pick-ups have just forged on.

Mazda's stalwart in that segment is the BT-50, a light commercial vehicle recently upgraded (more here) and sharing its mechanicals and design with its badge-engineered cousin, the Ford Ranger.

The BT-50 tested by the Carsales Network recently was a 4x4 model in the high-grade SDX level of trim. Power for the vehicle was supplied by a 3.0-litre DOHC four-cylinder turbodiesel with intercooler. This engine drives through a five-speed manual transmission to the rear wheels, with mechanical transfer and remotely activated free-wheeling hubs to divert torque to the front wheels also.

The reviewer jumped into the Mazda after a week of driving a Citroen C5 and the BT-50 provided a (literal) jolt to the system. Gone was the refined diesel V6 and smooth-shifting six-speed automatic of the French car. In their place was a very truck-like four-cylinder diesel and five-speed manual transmission.

To the Mazda's credit, high-riding dual cab pick-up or not, it provided better steering feel than the Citroen!

Once we were acclimatised to the high driving position and the impression of bulk, the BT-50 actually began to impress with its willingness to turn in at reasonable speed. The BT-50 is one of the better vehicles of its type -- it's not really an offroad sports car, but most buyers could live with it.

On the road it requires a bit more finesse to drive safely. With a little time to overcome the minimal turbo lag, the diesel engine has enough torque to spin wheels easily from a standing start on dry bitumen.

We found the ABS to be a little oversensitive -- even on dry bitumen -- yet the Bridgestone Dueler A/T 245/70 R16 tyres seemed to provide a good blend of dynamic ability on and offroad, with relatively quiet and comfortable operation at all times.

Combined with the dual-range transfer and remote free-wheeling hubs, the tyres never left us lacking confidence that they could pull or push the vehicle out of deeper wheel ruts on what you might call a light-duty 4WD track past Healesville to the east of Melbourne. Despite a relatively chunky tread, they remained quiet on bitumen at open-road speeds.

With engine braking alone, the BT-50 did slide sideways downhill on one section of track. As one would expect, gentle applications of power will straighten the vehicle up easily. That was without a load too. Bear in mind though that this vehicle doesn't come with stability control, but the ABS makes a fair stab at keeping everything in order -- comments concerning its trigger-happiness notwithstanding.

At no time, negotiating deeper wheel tracks, did we ground the car and there were no problems encountered with approach, departure or breakover angles, but it was a relatively easy track.

Ride was quite firm at a primary level -- particularly at the rear -- but over smaller bumps and imperfections in the road, the overall balance was not bad. The BT-50's firmness offroad was less apparent and once the suspension was actually compressed or rebounding, the ride was pretty fair. A couple of larger potholes offroad produced clunks from the steering as the front wheels dropped into the holes.

Until you're cruising, you'll never feel alone with the Mazda's 3.0-litre turbodiesel. It's there to keep you constant company and lacks the ultimate refinement of the engine driving the Isuzu D-MAX reviewed recently (more here).

While it's virtually as capable as the Isuzu's and the stall characteristics are on par, the Mazda's engine really suffers from traditional diesel labouring and vibration at speeds below 1500rpm. Although it's not incapable of pulling below that speed, it just doesn't instill the same level of confidence as the Isuzu does. The Mazda's engine is significantly quieter once the vehicle is in fifth gear and the speedo needle is hovering around 100km/h. At that speed, wind noise is more apparent.

The BT-50 lacks the D-MAX's crawl control, which makes up in part for the Isuzu's lack of torque, although there's only a 20Nm deficit between the 380Nm for the Mazda and the 360Nm for the Isuzu.

Selecting low-range 4WD in the Mazda was easy via a transmission tunnel-mounted lever and when ready to resume driving on bitumen, we could disengage the remote freewheeling hubs by merely pressing a button to the right of the steering column. It doesn't get much easier than that and it's a system that anyone can be at home with from the word go.

As a general rule, instrument placement and legibility of the controls in the Mazda both attained a high standard. The gearshift was heavier than we recall for the D-MAX -- and not particularly fast -- but it was generally easier to use than that of the D-MAX and there's far less likelihood of mis-shifting in the Mazda.

Pedal placement was excellent for heel-and-toe. That's just as well, since the BT-50 has an under-dash handbrake which is shared with three-seat single cab models. Hill starts would be more of an inconvenience without the well-spaced, well-placed accelerator and brake pedals.

As a bonus, Mazda has tuned the throttle travel (with the accelerator pedal operating through an electronic 'drive-by-wire' system) for a good balance of offroad finesse and on-road response.

A footrest for the driver to the left of the clutch pedal doesn't extend all the way to the floor and is really intended for daintier feet than the mud-caked clodhoppers of the tradies who will be driving this vehicle in the main.

Compared with the D-MAX, the BT-50 lacks for rear-seat accommodation. On the plus side, seat comfort and support in the Mazda are both substantially better than in the Isuzu.

Front head and leg-room were more than adequate for quite tall adults, but should one or two of those tall adults occupy seats in the front, there's a subsequent reduction in the rear seat leg and knee-room, to the extent that knee-room for average size adults in the rear is marginal at best. Rear-seat headroom was very good though.

The relative lack of length in the BT-50's cabin makes itself felt by the access through the doors to the rear seats. They're a bit narrow and it could be a squeeze for adults to gain entry, although kids will have no such problem. The reviewer's eight-year old daughter liked the high riding nature of the BT-50 and the view to the side through the low-waisted windows.

There were enough cupholders throughout the cabin (three in the front and two in the back, by our count) and a deep, two-level lidded storage bin in the centre console for storage of smaller items.

The ute body is where it's at for transporting equipment, but the BT-50 dual cab -- in keeping with other similar vehicles -- isn't long enough to carry a conventional height stepladder. Yes, you can -- and likely will -- buy racks to carry anything too long, leaving the cargo tray for your cans of paint, compressors, tool boxes, etc.

As already mentioned, the BT-50 seems intimidating on first impressions. It's very truck-like and larger than its dimensions on paper suggest, yet with familiarity it quickly shrinks around you.

The external mirrors are large and properly located to allow you to reverse easily into a standard-size parking spot. At 12.6m, the Mazda's turning circle is not going to commend it in multi-storey car parks -- but then, how many 4x4 dual cabs can do better in such an unnatural habitat for the species?

So while the BT-50 is not really an entirely practical alternative to an SUV for around-town running, it's undeniably capable out in the country and is respectably economical and competent. We actually found ourselves enjoying the driving experience by the final day, but we're left pondering this: How good would the BT-50 be with the D-MAX's diesel engine?

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Published : Friday, 28 November 2008
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